I’m aghast at my temerity in attempting to comment on a Woodiwiss novel, particularly since this is the first one I’ve read. Scads of lines have been written by readers, bloggers, fans, and academic scholars on Woodiwiss’s stories, characters, themes, and her place in the evolution of the romance novel. Here’s my piddling offering.
Shanna Trahern is the pampered and petted daughter of an extremely wealthy cit Orlan Trahern who owns a sugar plantation island in the Caribbean and is called Lord Trahern over there. Shanna is used to getting her willful way in everything. And the first time her father thwarts her, her angry and rebellious actions set the entire story in motion.
Lord Trahern is widely known throughout English society for his wealth, but his lack of breeding means that the ton reluctantly and with bare civility welcomes Shanna at their routs and balls. She’s been sent to London by her father to catch a husband to her liking, preferably an aristocratic one. Shanna is not only outlandishly wealthy, she’s also outlandishly beautiful and her presence causes a stir in London. But she finds that she attracts impoverished aristocrats, who want her money, or degenerate roués, who want her body but not her hand in marriage. And she wants none of them. This is the Caribbean all over again, where there’s no one whom she could love and who will love her for herself. Her father, fed up with her fecklessness, issues her a year’s reprieve after which he will marry her off to a man of his choosing.
The year is almost up. So what does Shanna do? She hies off with her trusty bodyguard, Pitney, to the bowels of Newgate (yes, really!) to marry a murderer condemned to hang. She thinks she can splash her wealthy clothes and her enticing bosom in front of his eyes and he’ll salivate to do her bidding. She hadn’t bargained on finding someone who would insist on negotiating with her despite his circumstances. In return for marrying Shanna, giving her his name and making her a quick widow, the prisoner wants to consummate the marriage in a night of passion. He fills her with hatred, outrage and contempt, but she agrees because she’s in a bind.
The wedding day arrives, and her hefty bribe to the prison warden sees Ruark Beauchamp taken from the gaol and to the church. He is instructed to stop on the way to bathe and get himself rigged out in spiffy togs. For a man who had been counting the minutes till his neck was stretched, he finds this entire experience mindboggling. And that sense of unreality sharpens when he sees the gorgeous Shanna in her finery. She, in turn, is completely taken aback at this young lord now standing before her. Ruark might be a Beauchamp but he can’t possibly be related to the Marquess of Beauchamp; after all, he’s a condemned murderer from the Colonies!
After the wedding is over and the wedding breakfast is consumed, complete with some kisses and suggestive comments, the couple gets into the carriage. Ruark refuses to allow Pitney to get in with them, and seeing Ruark’s face like he’s spoiling for a fight, Shanna allows him to get his way. There, in the close confines of the expensive carriage, Ruark introduces Shanna to passionate kisses. She takes to them with abandon.
What follows next is the Forced Seduction scene. Sigh! I had heard these were popular in romance novels written in the 1970s. I couldn’t read that scene without seeing it as anything but a rape. Her struggles, her refusals, the pain, his utter disregard for her other than as a warm female body… it doesn’t feel anything like a seduction. It’s rape.
Just as he breaches her, the carriage comes to a sudden stop and Ruark is forced outside by prison guards. When he realizes that Shanna never had any intention of holding up her end of the bargain and spending a night with him, his very last hopes and dreams are dashed to pieces, and he’s enraged. He fights the prison guards and Pitney like a madman and is beaten and captured. As he’s being driven away, his screams of agony and utter despair rent the air.
Shanna, while disturbed, justifies her actions to herself and makes preparations to go home to her father to tell him that she’s now Madame Beauchamp, married and widowed. It is only a few days later when she realizes that Ruark Beauchamp – now calling himself John Ruark – has been liberated from Newgate, and far from being dead is now her father’s bondsman.
And so starts their push and pull story as they learn to tolerate each other, understand and deal with each other, and ultimately to trust and love each other. For two such strong-headed people, the HEA is justifiably earned.
So what are my overall impressions of the story?
I simply never warmed to Shanna, mostly because I couldn’t follow her motivations. Her highly emotional reactions to everything were tiresome to read, and over time, I felt they sprang not from real difficulties, but rather from imagined issues and a spoiled upbringing.
Other than that reprehensible rape of Shanna, Ruark never wavers in his desire for her or the courtesy and kindliness with which he treats her despite her brutal betrayal. He allows her to abuse him over and over again. She rants and rails at him, calls him hateful things, and once even hits him with her quirt (riding whip) across his bare chest and slaps him hard on his cheeks. And all he does is kiss her. How is that possible? I know she’s beautiful, but why take this abuse from her, all in the hope that she will fulfill her bargain and spend a night with him?
But this is not all there is to Ruark or to Shanna. Ms. Woodiwiss has done a wonderful job of bringing forth the complexity of their characters. She allows her characters to really live on that verdant Caribbean isle, to imbibe of the place and people and to influence them in return. The historical detail and world-building is superb. The book after all is 660+ pages long, and Ms. Woodiwiss has used that space to tell a fast-paced story within the structure of a detailed saga.
If you’re interested in reading a seminal book that has made romance genre history, written by an author at the top of her game, you might consider reading Shanna. But the foot-stamping, curl-tossing nature of the heroine renders her unsympathetic to the modern reader, and the forced seduction/rape scene is certainly something that doesn’t stand the test of time. While there are definitely aspects of the book that I liked, those things meant I wasn’t able to rate it more highly.